by Eugim Migue
ADDU Graduate Student
The second part of the principle of justice according to John Rawls is concerned with the distribution of income and wealth and the design of public institutions. It deals with the task of opening offices and opportunities to all social ranks and classes; though not necessarily actually giving persons all opportunities, but giving them expectations and prospects for a more advantageous and fortunate circumstance through the design of the social structure. The second principle, further, allows, and does not restrict, inequalities to happen but on the condition that “everyone benefits” to such a designed inequality.
Here, inequality does not necessarily mean injustice, or unjust. It is noteworthy that the principles are in a strictly serial order, implying that the first part of the principle (or the first division of society) does have primacy on the second principle (to the second division of society) lest we forget the absolute inviolability of a human being. If the principle does not have this serial restriction, then it will be just to, say, risk an invalid’s life for a medical experiment, the success of which “benefits everyone”, even if basic human liberties were ignored. This is the essential character of Rawls’ conception of justice as a result of the hypothetical Original Position. The reversal of the serial ordering of the two principles would result to injustice.
Now, given that (1) a liberty given to everyone benefits everyone, the removal of which an injustice; and (2) inequalities are permissible if everyone benefits, the violation of the first principle rendering it as an injustice, the resulting main idea is that “an injustice, then, is simply inequalities that are not to the benefit of all.” More, “all primary social goods are to be distributed equally unless an equal distribution would be to everyone’s advantage”. But what would be the benefit of the inequality here? How is it possible to allow inequalities and still adhering to Rawls two principles? The idea is that we allow inequality by seeing to it that we do not violate an individual’s basic liberties, and that we open greater expectations and prospects for all. An injustice is inequalities that do not promote the liberty of the individual, and do not open greater expectations and life-prospects for all. But this is better explained by Rawls’s Difference Principle.
It is quite impossible, and unnatural, that there exists no inequality, in the economic aspect, between individuals or social groups in a given society. The very admission of the idea of the existence of a structure, or social ranking, of a society admits such fact (and Rawls conception of his two principles is a result of such an assumption). But Rawls suggests, that if we wish to achieve democratic equality – as one of the primary aims of the suggested principles of justice – there has to be some justification of any existing inequalities in the society. What would be the justification? Simply stated, the resulting or current inequalities should benefit everyone and society in general. The justification of the existence of an inequality (such justification rendering it just), implying that there are these two groups – the economically advantaged and disadvantaged – lies on the capacity, or role, of the economically advantaged to open better opportunities and life-prospects for the disadvantaged; if the economically advantaged does otherwise, or is apathetic to such a demand, then society is necessarily unjust.
The structure of a society should be designed not to simply secure wealth for the wealthy (as its ultimate purpose and justification), but to put the wealthy in a position wherein it is unnatural, and impossible, for him not to open better life-prospects for the economically disadvantaged. This by no means implies that the government should coerce the wealthy to give his riches to the poor; but instead, encourages the wealthy to increase the overall pie of the society (to pursue their own interests, still retaining their liberty), but in such process actually making it impossible not to enlarge the previously smaller pie shared by the economically disadvantaged, their life-prospects.
Rawls gives an illustration of the inequality between the entrepreneurial class and the unskilled laborers class; the former as having an advantage, in terms of the economic (current assets and life-prospects), the latter worse off. This inequality is just and permissible if (1) “if the difference in expectation is favorable for the least advantaged” and (2) “lowering it [the existing inequality] would make the working class even more worse off”. Even if the entrepreneur is, initially, in advantage, in terms of life-prospects and current assets, over the unskilled worker, this advantage is to be used for the development and opening of better life-prospects for the skilled worker, thus favorable for the unskilled worker. Further, if we remove this economic inequality, say, we coerce the entrepreneur to give his assets to the unskilled worker, we are actually making the unskilled working class “even more worse off”, thus an injustice to them. “But why?,” one asks. How should this asset be managed; is the unskilled worker rightly capable of this, in terms of long-term considerations? Does the “gift” put him in a position as to open better life-prospects for others; or only for that small circle to which he belongs? If the answer is no, then that would make it unjust.
What about the entrepreneur? We are actually making him, in a sense, an unskilled laborer – now that he has nothing at his disposal to invest into a better income-generating activity; not really helping society in general, and again, unjust. The action that promotes justice in this example, according to the difference principle, is to design society in such a way that (1) it admits this inequality while (2)rendering the life-prospects of the currently disadvantage better, e.g. the entrepreneur could open new markets and industries, thus actually opening new employment and career options for the unskilled laborer – thus benefiting everyone out of this initial economic difference. The difference principle has the aim of improving society in general without infringing an individual's liberty and without neglecting a better life-prospect for him and others.